Robert D. San Souci (1946-2014) authored more than sixty-five picture books and story collections for young readers, including The Reluctant Dragon, illustrated by John Segal, a retelling of Kenneth Graham”s classic, as well as The Talking Eggs, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, and The Faithful Friend, illustrated by Brian Pinkney, both Caldecott and Coretta Scott King Honor Books. His other accolades include two Aesop Awards from the Children”s Folklore Section of the American Folklore Society, two Commonwealth Club of California Silver Medals, and numerous other awards. He was a lifelong resident of California.
Robert D. San Souci in His Own Words
I always knew I wanted to be a writer. Even before I learned to write, I would listen carefully to stories read to me. I would then retell these to my friends—but I left out things I didn't like and added things I thought would improve the story. Often, what I added were monsters, since these seemed to liven things up considerably. I'm not sure my “new, improved” stories made a lot of sense—but they were colorful and exciting, and my friends seemed to enjoy them. In a way, I am still doing the same thing: taking old stories and telling them in new ways. Many of my picture books are retellings of folktales, fairy tales, myths, and legends from all around the world.
When I learned how to write, I decided that, more than anything else, I wanted to be a writer who would see his stories in magazines, newspapers, and, most of all, in the form of books. The first “books” I wrote were Christmas or birthday stories for my family and friends. They were written on sheets of lined paper that I clipped or tied or stapled together. I liked my stories to have pictures, but I wasn't very good at drawing. Happily, my brother Daniel (who is two years younger than me) loved to draw, so he did pictures for many of those first “books” of mine.
By the time I was in second grade, I thought I was ready to become a published author. With my mother's help, I would send story after story out to big New York publishers like Random House and Harper & Row. The editors at these places never bought my stories, but some of them were very encouraging.
All the time I was dreaming of becoming a published writer, my brother Dan was dreaming of becoming a full-time book illustrator. One day when we were in college—I was taking classes to improve my writing, and he was going to a special school for artists to learn more about the business of illustrating—we decided to work together to get ourselves published. I would write an original story, Dan would illustrate it, and we would get ourselves published as a picture book author and illustrator.
Twice I wrote original “once upon a time” stories that my brother illustrated. These first two books were rejected. But on our third attempt, we did something a bit different. Since we both loved stories from Native America and we both knew a lot about the Blackfeet, we decided to retell one of their legends—a story we both liked very much. And this turned out to be the right idea since The Legend of Scarface: A Blackfeet Indian Tale became our first published book back in 1978.
Since then, we have worked together on ten books. I have also worked with many illustrators from all around this country and around the world. I have been very lucky to have two of my books be named Caldecott Honor Books for the wonderful illustrations my stories inspired. One, The Talking Eggs, an old story from Louisiana that actually has its roots in Africa, was illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. The second book, The Faithful Friend, a story from the beautiful island of Martinique in the Caribbean Sea, was illustrated by Jerry's son, Brian Pinkney! Three of my books have also been named Coretta Scott King Honor Books.
I especially love retelling old folktales and fairy tales, since they give me a chance to tell in my own words some of the stories that were my favorites when I was growing up—and which have remained popular with audiences for hundreds or even thousands of years. I have retold stories from Mexico, Canada, England, France, Russia, Japan, Brazil—more places than I can recall. And I have told stories from all across this country: Massachusetts to California, Alaska to Hawaii. I love these old stories, because they are wonderful, colorful, always exciting tales—and they also have lots of “food for thought” in them. You can enjoy the story as simply a great story, but you'll come away from them with ideas about how to live as a better person. And, I hope, you'll also come away with a better appreciation of what it is like to live in another part of the world or maybe at a very different time in history.
I love sharing my stories with people everywhere—and I find many, many ideas for stories as I visit parts of America that are unfamiliar to me and meet countless people, many of whom have stories of their own to share with me, stories which sometimes inspire me to create yet another book. Their encouragement echoes that of my parents, friends, teachers, and others who urged me never to give up, to follow my dream of becoming a published writer. It may be a short journey or a long one to becoming a published writer. But, believe me, it's worth the effort.